With Hischier Back, The Real Devils Finally Stand Up
Friday’s first period against visiting Columbus in a game the Devils would go on to lose, 2-1, had to be rock bottom.
Who were these guys? Through most of November, those wearing Devils’ uniforms had been playing like imposters. With all their fill-ins due to injuries, some of them may as well have been. New Jersey Head Coach Lindy Ruff even resorted to using embattled defenseman Brendan Smith up front so he could finally roll four forward lines instead of having his top guns worn out in third periods from his 11/7 configurations.
On Friday, the Devils continued their disturbing trend of making costly defensive mistakes early in games. The Blue Jackets, the worst team in the Eastern Conference, capitalized twice and were able to hold on for dear life while the Devils peppered 32 shots on goal over the last two frames. The loss, after a much-publicized team meeting in advance of the game, was New Jersey’s seventh, all in regulation, in their last nine games.
Alarm bells needed to be triggered.
Fortunately, the return of center Nico Hischier to the lineup after missing the previous 11 games with a presumed concussion was just what the hockey doctor prescribed for Saturday’s contest against Buffalo at Prudential Center. The Captain delivered his usual standout 200-foot game while contributing a goal and an assist, both in a 4-0 first period, as the Devils romped over a similarly-depleted Sabres squad also playing on the back end of a back-to-back, 7-2.
While the Devils absolutely needed to get back on the winning track, the how was just as important. Other than on the penalty kill, where Buffalo went 2-for-2, New Jersey was dominant. A top-two team at five-on-five last season according to many NaturalStatTrick.com metrics, New Jersey entered Saturday’s contest with the second-worst five-on-five goal differential in the league, ahead of only the three-win San Jose travesty,
The Sabres were bombarded from Saturday’s opening faceoff, outshot by a ridiculous 38-12 margin and outchanced, 46-9, per NST. At five-on-five, the Devils owned an 84.1% expected goals for percentage. After each of the Sabres’ goals, it took the Devils less than two minutes to respond with one of their own.
Even Smith recorded his first point of the season, working around the net front for loose change off a Jack Hughes shot that Tyler Toffoli eventually backhanded home on a delayed Buffalo penalty to put New Jersey up, 2-0. Ironically, Smith was also on the ice for his first goal against in nearly 45 minutes of shorthanded ice time this season. The Devils will take that tradeoff.
The point is that Saturday was a total team effort, with 11 players hitting the scoresheet and none skating as much as 21 minutes of ice time. Still, it was Hischier who set the tone. It wasn’t just the dirty goal where he nudged in a loose puck in the blue paint for the Devils’ third marker of the first period; it was all the little things. Like how he drove to the net to free up linemate Ondrej Palat to receive Jesper Bratt’s pass in the slot; Palat buried the puck past beleaguered Buffalo goalie Eric Comrie for a 4-0 Devils lead. Or how Hischier tracked back to intercept several Sabres passes into dangerous areas. Or how he won nearly two-thirds of his faceoffs.
Those types of details were what the Devils had been largely missing during their slump. As Ruff noted in his postgame remarks, having Hischier back in the fold had a cumulative effect in that it allowed others to settle into their more comfortable roles. For all of Michael McLeod’s improvement over the last year, he’s not a play-driving, top-line center.
Whether this was a one-game wonder or the start of a turnaround remains to be seen. Not only are the Devils still missing high-scoring wing Timo Meier and defensive specialist Tomas Nosek, but the forward group took another hit on Saturday when Erik Haula did not come out for the second period. As per his standard response, Ruff would not offer a timetable for any of his injured players.
The Devils (9-9-1) will face a more challenging engagement on Tuesday when their division rival Islanders invade The Rock. New Jersey’s downward spiral left them at the mercy of the NHL’s so-called “Thanksgiving Curse”, whereby teams that were outside a playoff position at the holiday are allegedly doomed to miss the tournament.
Obviously, that’s far from an absolute lock. But the only way it will be defied this season is if the real Devils show up from here on out.